President Obama, as is his wont, took upon himself the role as professorial instructor during a campaign speech at a local college in Maryland this week. Deriding his opponents as contrarians and anti-science in the ongoing debate regarding America’s energy needs and potential new sources of energy, the President clarified for adoring students the role of “rubes” in history in attempting to obstruct progress:
“Of course, we’ve heard this kind of thinking before. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. … There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don’t believe in the future, and don’t believe in trying to do things differently. One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, ‘It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?’ That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore because he’s looking backwards. He’s not looking forwards. He’s explaining why we can’t do something, instead of why we can do something.”
It is certainly not the the first time a politician has used an endearing nonsensical understanding of history to try to prove a point, and it won’t be the last. Many presidents have made assumptions based on superficial understanding of past events and cultures to promote many wayward programs and agendas. The problem of course begins to arise when a politician uses a general disdain for accuracy and a superficial shell of understanding of history, science, geography, and culture to form a bedrock philosophy. President Obama continues to use historical facts and figures as if he got them from the back of a bubblegum wrapper, and it shows in his tendency toward naive and oblivious maneuvers in both domestic and international events.
President Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President of the United States, may not have been Mt Rushmore material, but the assumption that he was a culturally backward neanderthal is just one more example of not bothering to let facts get in the way of a good story. President Hayes was a highly educated and intelligent individual, conversant in ancient Greek, a Harvard College law graduate, and a major general in the victorious Union Army. He proceeded to become a U.S. representative and governor of his home state of Ohio, succeeding to the Presidency of the United States in the highly contested election of 1877 against Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York. In an election so contested that it required a decision by the House of Representatives to finally declare a winner, Hayes proved equal to the task, bringing a reputation for honesty and progressivism to the job. The period after the Civil War was a time of significant political instability and Hayes brought a steady hand to the task, achieving an end to the north’s dominance of the south through reconstruction, attempting to restore integrity and performance to the civil service system, a tireless advocate for availability of education to all, and working to achieve what was felt to be at the time an enlightened policy of assimilation of native americans into the greater culture. It also turns out that he was, much like Lincoln before him, a technology geek, and a believer in American industry and ingenuity. The first functioning wire phone service of Alexander Bell’s invention of the telephone listed the Hayes White House as phone number 1, and Thomas Edison frequented the White House, demonstrating new fangled inventions such as the phonograph, to the delight of Hayes. Even Obama’s dullard remark that Hayes’ attitude regarding science is what kept him off of Mt Rushmore comes up short. Hayes, a popular President, served on term not because he could not gain another, but because, he had campaigned on serving one term and one term only, and he was a man of his word. There are worse legacies to be had than that.
Is it necessary for our leaders to have a solid foundation in historical accuracy to make good decisions? One is reminded that the highly successful foreign policy president Truman was a high school graduate, and President Reagan was accused of using Reader’s Digest as his predominant fact checker. Even a President acknowledged to be a voracious reader of history, and a frequent interviewer of historians’ perspective in his analysis of current events, George W Bush, failed to articulate an in-depth understanding of events, at least in any way recognizable to his opponents.
President Obama, however, is unique in his acquired knowledge set. What kind of grasp can you have on the forces of history if you have bothered to restrict your reading and devise your thinking only through the bent prism of history’s aggrieved? Can the man who is quoted as saying there are 57 states in the union, understand the bonds that led to each of the actual 50 joining the American union of states? Can the President who felt a telling weakness of the American role in Afghanistan was the lack of available Arabic speakers in the military, possibly discern a victorious strategy in an Afghanistan devoid of Arabs? Can a President who hugs President Chavez of Venezuela in front of President Uribe of Columbia possibly mediate a conflict between the two important South American countries, when Chavez promoted the harboring elements of the murderous columbian terrorist organization FARC, within his territory? Can a President who assumes that people from Austria speak Austrian, have the facility to understand the historical considerations that led Austrians and other Europeans to see the Euro as the means of integrating Germany peaceably into the fabric of a modern Europe? The list goes on and on. The anointing of President Obama by historian Michael Beschloss as “probably the smartest guy ever to become President” flies in the face of this President’s clumsy grasp of ties of history that bind, and speaks to our loss of rationality in assessing common sense, achievement, and reasoning.
The President is an ongoing example of our sharp societal lerch towards the domination of feelings, victim-hood, and pre-formed ideas in the national conversation. It proves increasingly difficult to have an intelligent debate on issues such as economic progress, climate change, freedom versus responsibility, the principles that uphold a functioning democracy, the role of a constitution in a republic, and the extremely complex considerations of war and peace when the acknowledged leader of the free world has disdain for accuracy and the intellectual rigor for those very discussions.
Rutherford B. Hayes may not be on Mt Rushmore, but he understood his role in promoting, not rejecting the American ideal, and saw his role as president as a steward, not an adversary, to those ideals. Based on President Obama’s ongoing assault on history, the constitution, and the unique strengths of the American story, I can assure him when future historians review his time at the tiller of America, the stone head they will be referring to will not be a facsimile granite edifice on Mount Rushmore.